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Don’t blame Brad Ausmus for a flawed roster falling short

It’s hard to size up a manager, but Brad Ausmus probably isn’t to blame for 2016’s early end.

Detroit Tigers v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

The Tigers fell short of lofty expectations again, despite more stars and a high payroll. You’re not happy today and you’re looking for someone to blame. So you blame Brad Ausmus, even if there are plenty of reasons you shouldn’t.

It’s easy to see why. The manager of this mess, Ausmus managed to take a team that made the playoffs four straight years turn it into a loser. At least that’s how the story goes for a large number of people out there. You hear their complaints at games. You hear the sneering on sports radio. Even your uncle has a theory.

It’s Ausmus’ fault

And maybe they all have a point. A season ago I wanted Ausmus be fired, too. Then again in May you could find me condemning pretty much anything having to do with the man. He made bad decisions. The team couldn’t run. It couldn’t field. At times it couldn’t pitch, and at others it couldn’t hit. Little League coaches couldn’t believe the poor fundamentals demonstrated by a major league roster

If it wasn’t that, it was Ausmus being too rigid on his bullpen roles. Or being too slow to pull some starting pitchers. Or showing no creativity with his lineups.

If not that it was his demeanor. He looks more like he’s the players’ pal than their boss. He didn’t have the grumpy-but-loving grandfather persona that his predecessor, Jim Leyland had. A Californian with an Ivy League education, Ausmus doesn’t come from a background that fits in well with a town that claims a lunchpail mindset.

There just wasn’t any good reason to keep him. Or so I thought. Yet by the end of September I wasn’t so sure any more. I’m still not, entirely. Somehow in May, when it looked bleakest, the team started to turn things around, and Ausmus likely saved his job.

Overcoming expectations

That happened while No. 2 starter Jordan Zimmermann suffered from ineffectiveness and injury for the final four months of the year. While Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey continued to put up among the highest ERAs in the AL. While Justin Upton struggled to finally break out of a deep cold spell. While Cameron Maybin missed more time with an injured thumb. While Nick Castellanos missed most of the final two months after being hit by a pitch. While a rookie and two near-rookies filled out the rotation. While the closer struggled on and off all year, and the otherwise reliable relievers in the innings ahead of him took turns setting fire to leads.

You go through all that, and you still get to 86 wins in 161 games and have a chance to make the playoffs entering the final weekend. That’s pretty remarkable. Before the season, we made our picks at Bless You Boys. Most ranged from about 83 wins to 89. Sizing up the roster heading into the year, I thought Detroit would win 86 games. If you had told me all that they’d suffer this season, I’d have said somewhere in the 70s.

Or here’s another way of trying to size up Ausmus: Sabermetrics is built on the idea of the Pythagorean theorem turning runs scored and runs allowed into predicted wins and losses. In each of his three years, the Tigers have done better under Ausmus than the numbers say they should.

2014 projection: 86 wins. Actual: 90

2015 projection: 69 wins. Actual: 74

2016 projection: 83 wins. Actual: 86

You can quibble a bit here or there, saying his decisions led to runs being scored or allowed. But the Tigers were 26-17 in one-run games in 2016, 26-22 in in 2015, 23-20 in 2014. They had either a .500 or a winning record in extra-inning games in each of the three seasons, too. The team is winning “toss-up” games at a higher rate than expected. What more do you want of your manager than to beat expectations year after year like that?

So it’s really not Ausmus’ fault

You might want Ausmus’ head. Odds are you do. I asked a number of people before the game Sunday what they thought of Ausmus. Much like my own feelings, replies were mostly a range of outright dislike to mild support with no real unifying theme.

It would feel good to see someone take the fall for the Tigers’ failure, but it would be misplaced blame. Ausmus isn’t perfect, but no manager is. All of them end up a bigger lightning rod than they should be.

When sizing up a team’s chances, you don’t look at the manager — you look at the roster. Ultimately, the roster just wasn’t deep enough in 2016 and we knew that going in. This may not sound like a ringing endorsement, because it’s not one. But know this: Placing the blame on Ausmus for the team’s shortfalls elsewhere would be completely missing the point. It’s better to fix the real problems this offseason.